By SCOTT SHALAWAY
Early childhood experiences often shape the adults we become. In my case, I remember going to the Philadelphia Zoo with my parents. I relished those times with my mom and dad and recall them fondly now.
Lions, tigers, and bears were just the stuff of books, but at the zoo they became real. I dreamed that some day I might visit the far away places where these animals lived, and maybe even study them as a real scientist.
And look what happened. I became a wildlife biologist and have studied prairie dogs, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and a variety of other birds. I’ve traveled all across the country and have observed alligators in the Everglades, sea otters in Alaska and finback whales in Maine.
One morning, in a secluded bay on Kodiak Island, I awoke to a pod of killer whales swimming around our boat. And I’ve led eco-tours to the Galapagos, Mexico, Ecuador and Panama.
I doubt that I’ve done all these things just because I went to the zoo as a child, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Those experiences at the zoo fueled my imagination and helped sustain the dream to someday work with wildlife.
So as my daughters grew up, I made it a priority to take them to zoos as often as possible. In the process I discovered there are many truly great zoos within a four-to-six hour drive of where we live — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Cape May County, NJ (www.capemaycountyzoo.org, admission is free), and the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C.
In all those visits, I cannot remember having a bad day at a zoo. Sometimes it rained and sometimes it got too hot, but the animals never disappointed.
I remember watching my daughters gaze into the eyes of gorillas behind a plate of glass. “What are they thinking, Daddy?” they asked.
I recall them howling at the antics of monkeys on an island; and how they fell in love with baby animals in nurseries.
I suspect these zoo experiences helped nurture in my daughters an interest in the outdoors and nature. Even though neither became a biologist or a professional conservationist, they both love coming home to the ridge, walking the trails, and just lying in the hayfield watching the clouds by day and stars at night.
I thought of all these things and more as I anticipated the arrival of my daughters, one son-in-law, and one grandson for the recent Easter weekend. It was our first family get-together in more than a year, and I wanted to do something special. Garek is almost two, so I suggested we visit the Good Zoo (www.oglebay-resort.com/goodzoo), in Wheeling. He already loves animals, so I thought we might plant some seeds.
If you’re not from the Wheeling area, you might be unfamiliar with the Good Zoo, and that’s a shame. It is proof a zoo need not be big and filled with large spectacular animals to be excellent. It’s the people in charge who make a zoo great.
I was eager to show Garek my favorite exhibits — the otters, meerkats, bears, lorikeets and animatronic dinosaurs. That he loved them all put a smile on my face.
But Garek’s favorite part of the Good Zoo was the train that runs through the park. He loves the wooden train set and whistle he has at home, so I promised a ride on a real train.
He loved it. We got good looks at two zebras and an ostrich, but I think he enjoyed the clickity-clack of the rails and train whistle as much as anything.
Next time Garek visits I hope he asks to go back to the zoo. If he does, I’ll know the seeds have germinated. And 30 years from now maybe Garek will follow in my footsteps.
As you make summer travel plans, put zoos on your list of places to visit. It just might change someone’s life.
And here’s a valuable tip — many zoos offer discounted admission if you’re a member of your local zoo.